Alumni Profile: John McDonald, founder of Boulevard Brewery

Printmaker-turned-entrepreneur follows homegrown, handcrafted approach

John McDonald
John McDonald is founder and president of Boulevard Brewery in Kansas City. He graduated from KU with a BFA in printmaking in 1976.

If anyone had told John McDonald as a KU art student that he would someday be the founder and president of the largest craft brewery in the Midwest, it’s unlikely he would have believed you.

“Like every artist, I suppose I wanted to be an artist,” he said. “Probably the last thing I thought I would be was a brewer.”

Yet, it’s McDonald’s time as an art student and a cabinet maker right out of college that set him toward a path of launching Boulevard Brewing Company. That, and a love of beer.

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This profile is excerpted from the spring 2013 edition of the KU Collegian alumni magazine. See our latest issue on the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences website.

“Really when I started the brewery, it was a lot of the same things I learned in art and cabinet making; seeing and doing and making things happen,” he said.

McDonald applied his experience as a home-brewer and know-how as a craftsman to launch Boulevard in 1989 in Kansas City. What started with a single brand, Pale Ale, has expanded to seven year-round brews, five seasonal brews and several artisanal brews in the Smokestack Series.

Although he’s a loyal KU alumnus, basketball fan and father to a KU student, he said not to expect a Jayhawk beer any time soon. Lawrence is a strong market, however, so is Columbia, Mo., home of longtime rival University of Missouri.

Even as Boulevard Brewery grows, it remains close to home. The business has expanded around the building on Southwest Boulevard where McDonald first began his brewery and where his father ran an industrial supply business.

As the business expands, McDonald’s commitment to Kansas City is firmly planted. He built his business in the same building where he made cabinets. It’s also the same building where his father, a KU alum, ran an industrial supply business. And it’s where his son lived until he was 2 years old.

As the business grew, McDonald expanded on the building on Southwest Boulevard, rather than finding a larger space elsewhere. The brewery now has capacity to produce about 600,000 barrels of beer a year.

While McDonald is happy to see his brewery branch out nationally and internationally, the most important market will continue to be local and regional.

“Things change as things get bigger. It’s harder to maintain that small business mentality as it gets bigger,” McDonald said. “We have a great crew of people here and we’re proud of our beer.”

McDonald has used the success with Boulevard to expand the opportunities to support his local environs. The company donates beer for charity fundraisers and hosts charitable functions in its hospitality rooms. He and other Boulevard employees also started a recycling operation, called Ripple Glass, to keep glass from going to the landfill by repurposing it for insulation and beer bottles.

The success of his brewery makes McDonald proud but what’s equally important is that he’s making a difference in his community.

“You’ve got to look at the important side of business, that money isn’t the only thing. It’s creating jobs and livelihoods,” he said. “Not just following the dollar but making sure you’re doing the right thing socially.”